John Waters’ response to boxes — the kind in which we tend to place others and ourselves — is to vomit on them. And then sell them, his pencil-thin mustache twisting in a good-humored smirk.
Throughout his career as a director, writer, artist, road tripper, provocateur, etc., Waters has been interested in revealing society’s obsession with reductive categorization. It has hardly been easy, therefore, to characterize his work, or even his characters, without sounding glib or without forgetting that, when he employs stereotypes — in exaggerated, extreme, crude forms — he’s usually commenting on, or skewering, the audience’s one-dimensional notion of what is “right.” A traveling sideshow is not merely that in Multiple Maniacs — its perversities upset the suburbanites walking by. Nor is a contest in Pink Flamingoes just a contest — it brings filth to the masses and upends the natural order of moralism. The people in Waters’ movies are as complicit in upholding some sort of moral puritanism as the ones showing up to see them.
His frequent collaborations with Divine were exercises in subversion by their very nature. Here was a performer whose exterior image could not be considered conventionally feminine or masculine, or even androgynous: the caked-on makeup, the blithely drawn eyebrows, the egg-shaped head, the gun directed at the audience. “Filth is my life!” shouts Divine, whose relationship to gender — as politic, as way of living — is a little hard to figure out from her films. In spite of the fact that she makes her appearance explicit without feeling the need to explain herself, trying to make sense of her in a conventional, perhaps normative way ultimately misses the point of her importance in a given film, and in film history. In this way, Divine, especially in the context of Waters’ work, was a fascinating, grotesque and brilliant hodgepodge.
When Waters took his sensibility to the greener-grass suburbia of Serial Mom in 1994, working with a much larger budget, the result was an interesting juxtaposition between Waters’ trademark subversion and a polished studio film. His tendencies to express radical or perverse thought and to provoke, both viscerally and intellectually, are still there, particularly regarding normative and moralistic ideals in modern society. So, too, is his carping about the disingenuousness of hyper-categorization: The most respectable mom in town, Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner), is a killer. What’s most striking in Serial Mom is how well these impulses coalesce. Yes, the fact that Beverly is a killer is amusing; in the context of the universe Waters has spent years creating, though, it also simply makes sense.
The contradictions, what Waters has always had fun playing with (recall Multiple Maniacs’ “rosary job”), are key to the character and her world. As a satirical response to the many housewives who lived without any recognizable interior on early sitcoms such as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best, Beverly takes “housewives with a life” to its logical extreme: She has developed an ethos: Her favorite pastime is gently obscene phone calls, screeching into the receiver, “Pussy willow, Dottie!” She has pleasurable sex with her husband. She murders people from time to time. She is consistent, even sympathetic.
Besides, everyone is a little seedy in Serial Mom: the father, Eugene (Sam Waterston), subjects his patients to dental sadism; son Chip (Matthew Lillard) is obsessed with gory films; the cheery neighbor (Mary Jo Catlett) has a penchant for scamming. But it all resonates differently than other “suburban decay” movies, given Waters’ whimsical touch. Halfway through the film, as each subsequent suburban resident has his or her secret life revealed, the secrets themselves feel increasingly pedestrian, even humanizing. Of course Chip’s best friend (Scotty Whalin) has particular pornographic proclivities. Who doesn’t? American Beauty is an exposé, revealing with a sense of detachment and schadenfreude what everyone already knows: that bourgeois suburbanites are unhappy and experience existential crises, too. Serial Mom is instead gossip told you by a friend goes at a party, captivating because of its meshing of absurdity and local truths. The most shocking thing about Serial Mom is that it increasingly becomes not very shocking.
Consistent in Waters’ filmography, though, is his interest in camp, particularly in its power as a political tool. In his more explicitly queer films, including Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, his camp is a handful of nails dragged across the chalkboard of heteronormative social imperatives. What we’re told to want, especially as queer people — whether cha-cha heels or to assimilate into straight society — is silly or lame. But he’s never made his women into caricatures. Instead, he recognizes their complexities as crucial to their being.
Too often, critics and commentators apply the term “camp” broadly to any project about complicated women, regardless of whether it fits; the labeling has become a willful dismissal of the gradations of emotion and experience that color womanhood. Such rhetoric suggests that women’s emotions matter only in the context of (primarily) gay men’s access to them. Yet Waters has always seemed to elide this issue; though he still frames his works within the lens of camp, his camp does not disregard female experience by consigning women characters to the modes of camp usually allows them: extreme elation or fury-slash-depression. He gives them room to play, to explore gradations of personality and emotions.
In Serial Mom, Turner can sound like she’s mimicking a ‘50s TV mom, then smirk as she exacts revenge on a neighbor, then show genuine tenderness to her children. Here the “wink” that’s so often couched in camp isn’t one of superiority but is rather an acknowledgment of the character’s fun. Waters has a history of writing incredibly verbose screenplays in which female characters are given a lot to do and the opportunity to show a range of emotions and ideas, always with the Waters edge. He gives his female characters, including his iconoclastic housewife, a life beyond that label, outside that box.
Beverly isn’t easy to understand. Nor should she be. Even as her murder trial rolls on, the facets of her character deepen; she finds marginal sins (not recycling, wearing white after Labor Day), but not her retribution in response to those acts. She exists as an anarchic response to the idealized housewives who proliferated in media over most of a century, especially after World War II. She takes every opportunity to tweak that image: You’re a suitor who stands up her daughter (Ricki Lake)? A fire poker in your poker. You don’t recycle? A knife in your stomach. When she gains fame for her killings, she has an ambivalent relationship to celebrity: She lights up when her daughter tells her she’s become bigger than Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, but is irked at much of the scrutiny she receives, by the media’s insistence on turning her into an archetype. “The only ‘serial’ I know anything about is Rice Krispies,” she says, disinclined to be labeled as “Serial Mom.”
Conversely, she uses that title to her advantage when getting into a concert venue. Beverly walking in with fresh meat on the brain. She plays Sharon Stone’s Basic Instinct game during a key witness’ testimony. She knows how to wield her iconography. She has learned from those who came before her what femininity means in the modern world: the way it’s wrangled into a narrow role and exploited, and how, by subverting that ideal, she can capitalize on it — and even gain autonomy.
The power of the absurdities of Serial Mom have been dulled, mildly, by the proliferation of properties such as The Real Housewives franchise and the various dysfunctional families on E!, USA Network and TLC, whose every flaw is presented for us to judge (without asking that we hold ourselves accountable). But Serial Mom, perhaps a predictor of this kind of audience obsession (in its world, TV viewers avidly follow Beverly’s trial), challenges the prevailing belief that such judgment should be levied in the first place, sans contrived narrative trauma. We expect even more that our female characters might fit neatly into categories, under labels, within boxes. Instead, Beverly will be there, brandishing a box cutter.